Orfeo is the story of Peter Els, a septuagenarian composer, musicologist, DIY microbiologist, and now America’s most wanted bioterrorist.
Written by American Richard Powers, the story of Els’ 70 years of life unfolds before the reader along interweaving strands of narrative: in one thread a young Els is born in January 1941, a week and a day after the premiere of Messiaen’s Quartet at the End of Time in war-ravaged Germany; in the next Els at 70 buries his dog in the backyard; days later he is on the run, wanted for his experimentations with Serratia marcescens. The narrative flashes back, Els meets his first love Clara; another shift, Els follows the composer Partch along the highways of California, tweeting his last great work to the world.
The filaments of Els’ life weave together so seamlessly that by the end of the novel you have a complete image of the patchwork that makes up the composition of Els’ existence. Powers arranges all these events in such a string of beautiful pieces and passages that one can only marvel at the man’s genius. The level of research, craft, and execution is remarkable.
Els’ life is mirrored throughout the novel with historical events of the American 20th century. Not only does Powers show us the ramification, and also importantly the lack of consequence, that these events have on Els (he feels that nothing changed after September 11 2001 but David Koresh has a huge and immediate impact on his life), it also gives the reader a history lesson on some esoteric and obscure events of the time including the Münster Rebellion, Shostakovich’s insurgence in Stalinist Russia, and the aforementioned Stalag VIII premiere of Quartet at the End of Time.
Powers’ ability at ekphrasis is virtuoso; in the hands of a less capable author these passages would have come across as didactic but Powers’ descriptions of the events, interweaved with the life of Els and the performances he constructs around the material, are some of the strongest in the book.
Of course without character all the craft and research in the world would fall on deaf ears. Luckily Powers has created in Els a character that is achingly human, totally relatable, and extremely likable. Els is a man who makes mistakes, turns his back on opportunities, and is riddled with regret for the false steps that have made up his life. He is also a character who lives a life full of music, a life that is a joy to follow and watch unfold in Powers’ capable hands.
Orfeo is a novel that works on so many tiers that degrees in musicology and literature may be prerequisite to decipher all its rhymes and rhythms but anyone who enjoys good storytelling and strong characters will find something special here. Upon completion you may find yourself tuning into the sounds around you, instructed by Els the composer, to open yourself up to the endless variations of music encoded everywhere around, from the chirrups of insects to the hum of traffic and the crashing of low flying planes.
One of the levels on which the book works is its clear examination of the loss of art; as Peter Els’ music talent is squandered on the few people willing and able to recognise his work’s worth, so too are authors of Powers’ capabilities being overlooked for the sugary pop-song novels of his contemporaries who sell millions of copies of poorly written hash; not to mention the truly frightening fact that reading as an activity is in decline, a decline that is leading to the apparently imminent demise of the novel as a popular art-form.
Prophets have foretold the death knell of the novel for decades but Powers’ latest novel is a clear indicator that far from the battle for consumers’ dollars being over, it has only just begun.